|Pioneer Pursuits, with special
reference to Pastimes and Pleasures|
Presented by: Carl F. Mirus
Originally published in "The
Navarro County Scroll", 1959
Reprinted with permission of the Navarro
County Historical Society
Friends, Fellow Members, Ladies and
Presenting a paper dealing with the past
activities of our fore-fathers entails, necessarily, a good deal of hearsay,
repetition of old legends and some lifting and adapting from the writings of
those who have made a serious study of pioneer lift.
Most of the material here presented has
been related to me by older people - in fact I may say that any one is ten or
fifteen years older than I, qualifies, in my mind at least, as a genuine pioneer
- and some is from various other sources.
To begin, it is difficult for us today
to imagine the hardships endured by the original settlers. Today, even the
poorest of our citizens enjoy an ease of life which was wholly beyond the reach
or even the thought of the richest of the early settlers, and the poor of the
time - and there were so many more poor - lived a life of rigorous hardship and
Today we take for granted radios,
televisions, automobiles, gas and butane fuel, hard surfaced roads, theatres,
phonographs, stores selling every need and luxury, the country side traversed
with telephone lines and electric lines, railroads and truck lines bringing in
wares from other climes and taking our produce to the markets of the world.
One hundred years ago, even fifty years
ago, the country was sparsely settled, neighbors lived, except in the towns and
villages, far apart, dependent on their own resources for a livelihood and
entertainment. I doubt if these sturdy, self-reliant folk gave much
thought to the lack of what we, today, feel necessary for living. For one
thing, most of our modern aids to ease, comfort and well being were not thought
of at all. I expect if some prophet in the 1880's or even in the early
1900's would have told of some of our modern inventions he would have been
derided as insane, or as having imbibed too much rum.
The past week we have a severe cold
spell. But gas heaters, space heaters, floor furnaces, central
heating systems have kept us warm. Well built houses, often with insulated
walls, double floors, tightly fitting windows and doors have kept the cold
outside. Our early settlers lived in log cabins of flimsily constructed
houses of rough sawn planks. Roofs were of loosely laid shingles, the
floor, either earth, or planks with wide cracks. The windows and doors
were makeshift. In short, the houses were draughty and cold.
The only heat was that thrown out by the fireplace or "chimley."
The open fire, though cheerful to look at, served to roast the front and freeze
the rest of the person. So it was the custom to throw a quilt over the
chair and wrap this over the shoulders to keep warm by the fireside. The
only light was that of tallow dips or a rag in a bowl of lard.
In the summers, not only were there no
electric fans, evaporative coolers nor air conditioners, but there were no
screens, and flies, mosquitoes and other insects made themselves at home inside
Due to the lack of home comfort, as we
know it, folks went to bed with "the chickens" and there was little
nocturnal social life in the early days. There were occasional sociables,
and infrequent square dances held at night. But the social life, as we
know it, was non-existent. For one reason, it took a lot of hard work to
live, especially for the women folk, and by nightfall all were ready for sleep.
The pioneer woman, especially, had a
hard life. Bearing and raising a large family, cooking for all of
them, doing the wash in the good old fashioned way with tubs, washboard and an
iron boiling pot, using lye soap she had made herself, making clothes for all
the family, even in the early day spinning and weaving the cloth, putting up
preserves and the various sorts of pickles and chow chow needed to spice the
monotonous died, making a garden, often cutting the stove wood and then working
"in her spare time" in the fields alongside her husband and older
children, and milking the cow morning and night for a full life that did not
crave nightly or daily amusement.
The early settlers were, in the main,
deeply devout, sometimes bordering on the rim of fanaticism. Therefore,
most of the early entertaining centered about and was dependent on the religious
culture of the time. Most of the pioneers were members of the more
militant evangelical sects and these frowned upon most secular entertainment as
being Satan's handicraft and the members were forbidden, upon pains of eternal
exclusion from the ranks of the blessed, of attending any public gathering
unless this be educational. A legend has it, that circuses added the
menageries of wild animals to their shows so as to be able to come under the
educational category. Likewise, it is a well documented fact that
the reason theatres were all called "opera houses" was to circumvent
the ban on theatres. I am sure many here present will recall the old
Merchants Opera House in Corsicana, and will further recall that there was never
an opera sung in it. But many fine theatrical performances were given and
those who would, could still say they had seen the opera.
So, in the early days the church
services were the greatest social event. Possibly because the people lived
far apart and were lonesome, seldom seeing the nearest neighbor, and church
afforded not only spiritual strength, but afforded an opportunity to see and
visit with friends and neighbors.
As ministers were scare regular
preaching services were had on an irregular basis. Some churches
maintained circuit riders who followed a fairly regular schedule over an
established route. Other denominations had missionaries in the field who
covered as much territory as they could.
But in the summers, when the weather was
warm, the crops laid by and there was plenty of time, then were held the great
religious gatherings of the year. The protracted meeting, or the camp
meeting. I am not familiar with the exact distinction between the
protracted and the camp meeting, but think the protracted meeting was held at
some locality where the settlers were thick enough so all could attend from
their homes, both daily and nightly sessions. On the other hand the camp
meeting ministered to the spiritual needs of those who lived more widely apart
and so a central spot was selected, preferably in a grove of trees, with water
available. In this spot the men folk would erect a rude shelter made
from posts with pole stringers to support a roof of tree limbs or brush.
There was once a community in Navarro County called "Brushy Arbor".
The brush roof afforded shade and made it cool and comfortable for the
listeners. And may be it was well that it was cool and comfortable,
because often the sermon delivered treated of the great heat generated by
brimstone and waiting for the unwary sinner.
At these meetings there were, in the
early days, no pews or seating arrangements. People sat on the ground, or
brought their own chairs. In some places, where the tree growth was
sufficient, logs were cut and rolled under the arbor for rude seats. In
later days lumber was borrowed or rented from lumber yards to make benches.
When the camp meeting started all the
people in the vicinity - say in a radius of 15 or 20 miles - would pack food,
bedding and other necessities of life in their wagon and drive to the meeting.
There they would each select a camping place, generally in family or friendly
groups, unload the wagon and set up house - keeping for the duration of the
Some brought the family cook stove,
others cooked over an open fire. There was a lot of trading of food,
recipes and gossip. The women and children generally slept in the wagons
and the men and boys underneath the wagons.
These meetings lasted from a week to a
month. Preaching was held several times a day, with often four or
five ministers sharing the preaching. There were seldom any musical
instruments, pianos or organs, at these meetings and the singing was done under
the auspices of various song leaders. Some leaders had voices strong
enough to carry the congregation with them as they led off with some familiar
and well liked hymn. Others "lined out" or had another singer
line out the songs.
To digress a little, we still have a
group of singers who follow the old style of singing, the "Sacred
Harp" or Fifth Sunday singers.
These protracted and camp meetings were
enjoyed by all, not only for their religious benefactions, but because it was
the only time of the year when there was free opportunity to see and visit
hundreds of people. To the young it was the time of courtship. It
was an axiom that the fall after each meeting saw many weddings.
Funerals also were the occasion of
gatherings, and because of the sadness and finality of death, always caused a
great ingathering of friends and acquaintances. Of course when death
followed a spell of sickness the countryside was aware of all that went on and
friends were helpful during the sickness as well as after death. Neighbors
took over the work of the sick, provided food, cut and hauled wood, sat up and
in general did good. In cases of accidental or sudden death, the grapevine
telegraph passed the word of the calamity and again friends and neighbors came
in to help.
Our pioneers had their superstitions,
just as we do. No doubt theirs were a blend of those brought from the old
country, those of the new country, those of the negroes, and the indians, with
whom they had come in contact. Superstition decreed, when death came
to a home, the clock or clocks must be stopped at the time of death and not
started until after interment. Any mirrors must be shrouded and kept
covered until after the funeral. All pictures had to be turned to the wall
or laid face down on the bureau or table. There were other, to us, odd
customs in connection with death. The country was full of harrowing
stories of body snatchers, or of cats, rats and other carnivores animals waiting
an opportunity to sneak in and mutilate the corpse. There were, too, blood
curdling accounts of someone being buried alive over in the next county and
horrendiferous details were related about the agonized efforts of the poor
persons vain efforts to free himself from the coffin and grave before dying the
Therefore, it was necessary to have a
corps of watchers to sit by the corpse to defend it from the depredations of the
animals and to observe closely for any sign of the corpse coming to life.
I rather suspect, had the corpse made any movement, there would have been a
general and precipitate exodus from the scene.
There being no undertakers available,
and if there had been, the roads might have made it impossible to get one, as
mentioned by Mr. Dawson in his paper on Old Pansy a year or two ago.
Friends took over and performed the necessary preparation for burial.
Not as Alexander Pope wrote:
By foreign hands thy dying eyes were
By foreign hands thy decent limbs composed,
By foreign hands thy humble grave adorned,
By strangers honored and by strangers mourned.
But friends laid out the body. If
it were possible to get a store bought coffin this was done, but if not, some
one would volunteer "I have some nice, smooth boards I laid back for this
sort of thing. "A burial box would be framed by the men, the women
would line and pad it. If a preacher could be found to hold services he
was sent for. If not, some of the elders preached the funeral and did
Superstitions also decreed various
decorations at the grave. Many graves were marked with shells, pottery,
bottles or other decoration, which I think was either an Indian or Negro custom.
As the cemeteries grew enough in
population, another social event grew up. This was the annual cemetery
working. On an appointed day, generally in the summer, all who had
relatives or friends buried in the cemetery met in an all day gathering.
The entire plot was cleansed of brush, grass and other growth. The graves
were re-banked, flowers were planted or growing plants were trimmed.
All brought lunches and an all day social gathering was had. In
election years the various political candidates made these cemetery workings as
it afforded them the chance to meet many voters with small effort. While
woman suffrage was not even thought of, the wily candidates wooed the women's
influence by bragging on their cakes and pies and especially their children,
knowing that woman, if won, would cast her vote through her men folk.
One of the best entertainments the
pioneers had was the occasional visit of itinerant merchants. Beginning
with pack peddlers who walked through the country from house to house with an
unbelievable weight of merchandise strapped in a bulging bag carried on the
man's back. Many of these pack peddlers were arrant knaves and lied,
cheated and stole. Others were high class men who built up a great
reputation for honesty and fair dealings and were welcomed back again and again.
One set of the latter class of pack peddlers were the Sanger Brothers.
My grandmother often told me of living neighbors to the Sanger clan at Calvert,
Texas, with five of the brothers of the brothers working the country with packs,
while the sixth brother stayed at home doing the buying and attending to the
business. This was about 1872. By the time the H. & T. C.
Railway reached Corsicana, they had prospered enough to open the first Sanger
Brothers store here, on the corner where the State National Bank now rears its
skyscraper. After the railroad reached Dallas, the Sangers moved there,
selling their store here to Col. S. S. Freedman and his brother Rueben Freedman.
One of the main attractions of the pack
peddler in his day was his value as a news carrier. Going from house to house,
and working out of a town, he had all the news of the day, and served to carry
messages from one house to the next. He was the radio of the day, as a
As the country developed and roads
became some better the pack peddler was succeeded by the wagon peddler.
This man could not only carry a far more extensive assortment of merchandise,
but he was also in shape to trade or barter his goods for whatever of value the
farm had which was possible to transport in the wagon. So the wagon
peddler would swap calico or pots and pans for eggs, butter, chickens, goose
down or whatever he could get and dispose of at his headquarters. He even
traded for calves and other livestock, trailing them after his wagon at the end
of a rope. This man, too was generally welcome as the bearer of news, or
often as a guitar or fiddle player, leading his customers in old times songs and
Among others of the itinerants of the
day were lightning rod salesmen, wandering "doctors" and eye glass
sellers. Some of these were good people but many have left bad reputations
for over zealousness in selling or for plain, down-right chicanery. But
all were welcome, at least on the first visit, as giving the monotonous drab
existence a break.
The wandering doctors finally came back
presenting the medicine show. They traveled through the country in gaily
painted wagons, emblazoned with the name of their panacea, often with several
riders on horseback being part of the entourage. They would stop at the
towns or villages or at cross roads and depend on passers by to herald them to
the entire community.
Most of them claimed to sell Indian
remedies: "Many years ago my father saved the life of an Indian Chief.
In gratitude the chief told my father the secret of Pohoya, the Kickapoo Indians
unfailing remedy for everything from falling hair to fallen arches. Good
for man or beast. Cures kidney ailments, stomach troubles, consumption and
every ill to which man is heir." Some of his horseback riders
might by Indians, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, and they rode and pranced
about. Others were blackface comedians and performed on the banjo and
guitar and sang songs of the day. At night, the camp was lit by kerosene
flares. All came to see the "free" show and many bought, from year to
year, the priceless nostrums sold, and used them with great success.
I have made mention of the lack of roads
in the early days. Perhaps I should say impassable roads. Any amount
of rainfall would turn the roads into an impassable morass, except for empty
wagons drawn by four animals or for horseback riders. Often up until
fairly recent days, many residents of outlying areas found it impossible to come
to town more than once or twice a year for necessary trading, both because of
bad roads and because of lack of cash, which was in hand but once a year, in the
fall after the gathering and disposal of the crops.
So one certain trip into town was staged
each fall to coincide with the visit of one or another of the circuses or Wild
West shows which worked the territory each fall.
This trip to town was for the annual
buying of supplies - staple groceries, bolts of cloth for garments, home
medicines and all other house hold needs. The more affluent drove to town
in buggies or wagons and put up at one of the wagon yards, the tourist camps of
the day. There they could get stalls for the horses and mules and, if
desired, a hut to live in, complete with cook stove and beds. Or people
could stay in their wagon and cook on open fires. The majority, for
reasons of necessity or economy put up at one of the several camp grounds around
town. These camps grounds were open space on the edge of town and there
people fixed up and lived for a few days, just as they did at camp meetings.
From wherever they put up at, they
operated from there as their headquarters during their stay in town.
Rounds were made of the stores and purchases made to be picked up in the wagon
on the start back home. The children were given a little small change to
spend as they liked. One old timer once told me he, as a boy, one fall had
a whole nickel to spend. He walked about town for a couple of hours before
deciding to blow his pile on a bottle of soda water. Then he found out he
had the choice of white or red soda water and it took him several minutes to
decide which he wanted. Quite different from today, with many colors and
flavors of soft drinks.
And then the great event of the year,
the circus. Starting with the mammoth free street parade in the
morning, with the wagons painted with pure gold and beautiful women and handsome
men riding the wagons, the stentorian cry of the parade master, "Hold your
horses, the elephants are coming," the clowns, the steam piano, which
purists would term calliope, even to pronouncing it calliope and of course the
band with its shining brass horns, the lions and tigers and everything.
Then the anti-climax of the show itself, with the man on the flying trapeze,
pink lemonade, goobers and, if finances permitted, the after concert.
And then back home to wait another year.
As time passed and the country became
more settled and the early citizens became better off, life became easier and
more pleasant. The kitchen was moved from its separate room in the
backyard and its open fireplace into the house proper with a modern cast iron
cook stove, often with a hot water reservoir on the back.
A reed organ was bought and the family
gathered around the organ while one, generally the wife or a daughter, worked
the foot bellows and made music for all. There were family singings and on
Sunday afternoon friends would gather for an afternoon of song and music.
Too, churches were built at convenient
locations and regular services held at least once a month and with Wednesday
night prayer meetings and singing of psalms and hymns. People were able to
buy horses especially to pull buggies, travelling farther and more conveniently
than the slower wagon teams and so were enabled to take in more pleasurable
As the community grew so did the
schools, which were at first either non-existent or very small and poor.
The schools provided a lot of pleasure to the scholars and the parents.
Our friend, Mr. Lewis Hodge, can tell us more of the social side of school life
than I, but I am sure he will agree the spelling bees not only intramural,
between different classes, or between the boys and the girls, or by selecting
leaders and they in turn picked their side, or with one school spelling team
visiting another school and vying with their best spellers, afforded teachers,
trustees, scholars and parents much pleasure to all except the poor pupil who
had to memorize and recite as best he or she could some tear jerker as
"Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight" or Mabel, Poor Little Mabel With Her
Face Pressed Against the Pane" or some such. For some reason our
early citizens believed in gloom.
But all in all they lived good lives.
They came here with little except the desire to create homes and leave a better
world in which their children would live.
Their aim in life was achieved
abundantly and if we live more easily today, it is in large measure due to the
privations and hardships they endured cheerfully in their honest and sincere
efforts to leave a better world than they found.
In conclusion, I say, that the more I
learn of our early citizens, the more I admire their courage, their resiliency
and their ability to make the most of what the opportunities were at the time.
They are entitled to say with Paul: "I have fought a good fight, I have
finished my course, I have kept the faith."